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The People in Your Neighborhood

We all like to feel connected to our local communities and neighbors. “Where everybody knows your name” was the theme to the 1980s TV show Cheers. It was about a local pub full of entertaining characters that got to know each other through their patronage. Relationships existed from the bartender/owner, to the hostess and waitresses, to the customers. The episodes were humorous, but the concept was one to which we can all relate. Whether we live in an urban or rural area, a familiar face accompanied by a personal greeting always helps to brighten our day.

“Mom and pop shops” and other small businesses—like the pub in this series—are the fabric of our communities and the grease of our economy. Small businesses, defined as independent businesses having fewer than 500 employees, employ 48% of private-sector employees in the U.S., and accounted for more than 63% of net new jobs from 1992-2013. More than one in every ten private-sector jobs are provided by microbusinesses with 9 or fewer employees.

Small businesses can provide financial independence and create intergenerational wealth. It’s an opportunity open to all, but it’s not for the faint of heart.  Starting a business requires long, strenuous hours and significant upfront capital that, more often than not, requires proprietors to personally take on substantial debt.  The risks are high, with about half of small businesses failing within their first five years, and only about one-third surviving ten years or longer.

Yet, our everyday lives would look very different without the commitment and dedication of the individuals that take on this risk. Without these businesses, our world would be more muted. Competition and variation in goods and services would decrease dramatically as large global businesses took over entire markets. Whether in New York, California, or Paris, goods and services would be identical. The model of big business is uniformity.

It’s a treat for me when I can visit the local gift shop in my town. It’s independently owned, housed inside of an old farmhouse, and staffed by working moms and students from the neighborhood. Rooms are filled with unique finds and treasures, ranging from children’s toys to cuff links and everything in between.

It is a bit more expensive, of course—the owner can’t offer the same “everyday low prices” that big-box stores can—but look at the impact this business has on the local community. The owner lives in town, uses the proceeds to care for her home and support her children, and funnels money back into the community by employing other local residents. All of them, meanwhile, support other local businesses through their own purchases. Extra space on the second floor of the shop also provides an affordable rental unit, something that doesn’t fit the global chain model. There are environmental benefits too; when I need to purchase a gift, I can find one here without the additional mileage needed to drive to one of the large shopping malls that serve multiple towns.

It’s not just about the economics, though. It’s about community. Upon entering the shop, I’m always personally greeted with a friendly smile, usually by someone I know.  If I haven’t met them yet, they’ll introduce themselves, and now that’s one more person in my neighborhood that I know. They’re always happy to help me choose the perfect gift and wrap it beautifully, all while providing the opportunity for friendly conversation.  In small little shops like this, employees can’t pretend they don’t see the shopper’s need for assistance, and the shopper can’t be impatient or rude. After all, everybody knows each other’s names. This is healthy for all. There’s a connectedness.

I sometimes travel on the commuter train. Even though the station is less than a block away from two well-known coffee chains, each morning—rain or shine—the coffee-truck guy is in the parking lot of the station. He always has a smile and a kind word and always remembers my order. He likely gets up at 4 a.m., cuts the bagels, prepares the coffee, and is on location by 5 in time for the start of the commuter rush.  I’m happy about the $1.50 that I spend for my cup of coffee, knowing that, after all his hard work cleaning the truck, shopping for food, and setting up before dawn, he’s not just standing idly watching commuters hurry past with their recognizable branded to-go cups. 

We are a large global community made up of millions of interconnected local communities.  Small business is not only healthy for our economy; it is healthy for maintaining a vibrant and personable society.  So, when possible, please bypass the chain and shop small.  They help keep our communities friendly and unique, and help keep us all connected.